Sunday, December 27, 2009

Patterson. “The Meaning of Authority in the Local Church.” - A short review

Patterson, Paige. “The Meaning of Authority in the Local Church.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem. 248-251. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991.

In three simple sections, Patterson cuts to the chase on the issue of the ordination of women, or more appropriately, on the issue of authority in the local church, for he accurately identifies authority as the issue at hand, instead of the red herring which is the controversy over ordination. In his first section, Patterson starts the process with an expeditious lexical and biblical study on the topic of ordination. While at times allowing for the existence of an emerging pattern in Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 4:14, and 5:22, he concludes that “it is sufficient to stress that no clear pattern or procedure for ordination is discernible in the New Testament” (253). One thing that is lacking in this section, though, is a definition for the concept of ordination. Due to the variety of meanings this term has in different traditions, it would have been helpful for Patterson to present his understanding of what ordination is and what it entails. Nevertheless, he correctly ends this section by stating that “most churches and denominations have developed ordination beyond New Testament precedent in both its form and its significance” (253).

This lack of New Testament evidence for ordination does not constitute, according to Patterson, a lack of evidence for the existence of ecclesiastical offices in the New Testament. Therefore the question is not “who can be ordained,” but “who is qualified to serve in those offices?” Here Patterson makes an assumption: that an office has authority associated with it. While he does not directly declare said assumption, it is central to his next section, where he seeks to understand how much authority elders wielded in the primitive church. This second section is mainly a discussion of multiple salient passages dealing with elders and authority. While maintaining that elders did have some level of authority in the primitive church, he quickly identifies limitations to said authority. These limitations are twofold: elder authority cannot supersede the authority of Scripture and is additionally bound by the authority of the congregation. As one proceeds through this section, one is given a theological whiplash of the mind, for one is first drawn in by Patterson’s convincing arguments on the role of the believers as priests and ministers with substantial congregational authority, which seems to be subordinate only to Christ’s authority, only to be thrown back by his reassertion of elder authority, even if somewhat limited. This limitation is necessary later when he reminds elders that their authority is subject to Scripture, therefore warning them not to give authority to any member to disobey Scripture (viz. giving authority for women to disregard what Scripture has to say about their role in the body).

Patterson then transitions to the question of authority and female teachers. He begins this section with a thorough encouragement for women to teach based on the Biblical pattern seen in the book of Acts and the writings of Paul. He also rightly points to Genesis to remind his readers that there is ontological equality between man and woman. He finally uses philosophical and Biblical arguments to argue that ontological equality does not necessarily mean functional egalitarianism. Knowing the classical arguments for egalitarianism, Patterson proceeds to dismantle them one at a time, while continuing to remind the church that they have the obligation to encourage women to “participate in the worship of the community of the saints with certain restrictions” (259).

He concludes this chapter with wisdom from his wife who, through a series of exhortations to live out Scripture in logical consistency, reminds the reader that the church should strive to assure “the full and proper use of [spiritual] gifts” (260).


Alan Knox said...

So, assuming elder authority (which I don't assume), Patterson argues that Scripture teaches that the authority of elders cannot supersede Scripture. Where does he find this "limitation" in a Scripture that didn't exist?


John Wilson said...

I believe too much of what we call "authority" is based on Church History and its incorporation of Old Testament "national" authority and not on the New Testament biblical narrative. While elders/overseers/shepherds as descibed in the New Testament appeared as an outgrowth of body life in a local body of believers "authority" was not what we think it means, e.g. in terms of government. Elders/overseers/shepherds were as the words mean those who were more mature and older who, because of their love for the Lord, loved His people and cared for them. Jesus is the One in charge, He's the Head of the church. It is the body of Christ who decide together, being one in mind and spirit and purpose. Elders/overseers/shepherds focus was on helping the body of Christ live by Jesus' life. If an elder/overseer/shepherd was not living by that life, just like any other believer then it was the body of Christ who lovingly went to that brother following Jesus' words in Matthew, etc. We must be careful not to patch verses together from the different contexts in which we find the body of Christ.

Maël said...


I think I know what you are asking, but just to be sure, can you be more clear. Thanks.

Alan Knox said...

Patterson said that the New Testament Scriptures teaches that the authority of elders is limited by the authority of the New Testament Scriptures. However, the New Testament Scriptures did not exist at that time to be a limit. I think his conclusion is more theological than textual.


Maël said...

Alan, you are probably right, but keep in mind that Patterson often ties Scripture with the Apostles. See: "At no point could elders in the churches supersede the authority of the apostles or the apostolic testimony preserved in Holy Scripture" (256).

John, thanks for the thoughts. FYI - Patterson puts much weight in Heb 13:7, 17 and the use of "rule" for his understanding of authority. Sometime in the not too distant future, I will spend some good quality time looking at those passages and the terms used therein.

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